Activist Spotlight: Brenda Howard

When we think of bi icons, people’s minds immediately drift to the likes of Megan Fox and Angelina Jolie. For me growing up, it was Lady Gaga and Billie Joe Armstrong; out and proud and loud about it.

According to PinkNews, more people are identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual in the UK than ever, with the majority of LGBTQ+ young adults identifying with the B. This women’s month, however, we should remember Brenda Howard, the original out and proud and loud bisexual woman who carved that B firmly into the acronym all those decades ago on the streets of New York city.

Brenda Howard, the self-identified “Bi, Poly Switch”, is often referred to as the mother of pride due to her crucial organisational efforts in the first Pride parade. She was an activist in every sense of the word, being heavily involved with the women’s rights movement as early as the 1960s due to dissatisfaction with women’s status in patriarchal society. This systemic discontent took Brenda further still, fuelling her activism for better treatment for people of colour, HIV positive individuals, and the queer community.

In the late 60s and the earlier days of Brenda’s activism, it was against the law for queer couples to dance with one another in public. It was also illegal for LGBTQ+ people to get together for drinks, and it was illegal to even serve them alcohol until 1966. This didn’t stop queer individuals who wanted to be able to do both these things, despite risk of arrest, coming together at the infamous Stonewall Inn. The year queer people could finally be served alcohol in public bars, the Stonewall Inn was opened as a gay bar, owned by the Italian mafia. This bar would later be the site of the Stonewall riots, the aftermath of a police raid at the bar: the bar goers overturned police cars, slashed tyres, threw bricks and fought back against the police, shouting and resisting arrest as loudly as possible. This incited further riots over the next few days, but also jumpstarted Brenda’s career as not only a fighter for equality, but a movement leader and figurehead.

Being involved in the gay rights movements at the time meant Brenda was good friends with many involved in the Stonewall riots. This event in particular lead her to organize a rally one month after the riots in July of 1969. Following this, Brenda was involved in the organization of what we now know as the first pride march one year after the riots, which took place on June 28th of 1970 and was aimed to travel uptown from Greenwich Village to Central Park. To say the parade was a success would be an understatement – with a turnout of thousands and a sense of solidarity strong enough to kill, the community dominated the streets. It is from this that our modern annual pride events originate, and it is because of Brenda’s involvement that pride has become more accessible and widespread.

One of the most important aspects of Brenda’s activism stems from her identity as a bisexual woman. Bisexual erasure has always been a problem, particularly for women. They are both illegitimated and oversexualised, seen as dating too many men or too many women to really be bisexual. When Brenda passed away in 2005, she was married to a man, a fellow activist named Larry Nelson, whom she met at a pride march in the 90s and who remembers her as someone who never stepped down in the face of a fight for social justice.

Perhaps it was Brenda’s assurance in who she was, as someone who was attracted to multiple genders, including men, that caused some of her most prominent work to be towards bisexual visibility and recognition, both in general and in LGBTQ+ spaces. In 1993, during an exclusively gay and lesbian march in Washington, Brenda “successfully lobbied for the inclusion of bisexuality.” Prior to this, in 1988, she co-founded the New York Area Bisexual Network, a friendly communication group for bisexuals in NYC, as well as an exclusively bisexual Alcoholics Anonymous.

Her brilliance does not stop there, however. Brenda was unapologetically involved in BDSM and kink culture. She was also openly and proudly polyamorous and worked at a phone sex hotline. She was frequently arrested for her protest efforts; three times according to the memorial website set up by her partner. She was involved in many organisations; from the Gay Liberation Front, an organisation formed after the Stonewall riots, to being a chair at the Gay Activists Alliance. After her death, the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays group created an award in her name as a means of honouring bisexual advocates within the community.       

Whoever your bisexual icon is, or your favourite activist, the LGBTQ+ community would not be where it is now without the relentless efforts and tireless bravery of women like Brenda Howard. Despite there still being a long way to go, it is women such as Brenda who helped to cause historical change, and her legacy as a bisexual woman who cared deeply about social issues resonates now, over 40 years since the first Pride. Despite historical erasure of women’s stories, it is important to never forget the women who both dedicated their lives to fight, and continue to fight, for the rights of women and marginalised people.

Image courtesy of Rebecca Orlov.

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